Can Living Cell Organisms Be 3D Printed?
The idea that the offices where we work and the homes where we live could actually produce a net positive amount of energy back to the electrical grid is an exciting idea. This week we’re going to go the opposite direction and look at very small micro-sized applications for 3D printing — specifically, we’re going to look at printing ‘living’ cell organisms. And not just any living cells, but cells that can clean their surrounding environment of toxins.
How would this work? Let’s look at a quick analogy, inspired by the classic Boy Scout motto for camping in the wilderness: Leave it cleaner than you found it. Imagine you have a car and as you drive, it purifies the air by eliminating pollution from the ambient air. What’s the biological analog? Well, in the human body, that kind of cleanup function takes place primarily in our liver and in our kidneys.
Therefore, the ability to create an artificial liver using 3D via printing technology would have many downstream applications, including:
- Possibly regenerating organs for patients with a failed liver.
- Filtering biological pollutants in the environment.
- Creating “mini-livers” that could traverse our circulatory system inside the body and clean up toxins.
Now is a good time to meet Dr. Shaochen Chen, Professor of Nanoengineering at the University of California San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering. Chen’s nano research laboratory has been instrumental in developing advanced techniques, called dynamic optical projection stereolithography (DOPsL), to create very small bio structures (scaffolds) and “living” tissues.
Funded by a four year, $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, Chen developed a 3D printed “organ” that can remove blood toxins, such as melittin, a component of bee venom. Importantly, melittin is chemically related other dangerous toxins such as anthrax and MRSA, which means this approach could be expanded to address his other critical toxins. How does it work? The internal 3D printed structure takes the form of hexagons, just like the human liver itself. These structures are embedded with nanoparticles that attract and hold the toxins. The device is color coded; when the toxins have been absorbed, the device turns red. Dr. Chen has also been test printing soft hydrogels, to simulate blood vessels that would be needed to supply nourishment to 3D printing organs. In the video above, you can see a 3D printed rib structure created in Dr. Chen’s lab that simulates a beating heart.
But how would such a liver-like filter work in real life? Would it be an external device that you connect to the blood stream, such as a dialysis machine that filters the blood of kidney patients? Wouldn’t it be much better if this artificial organ was made small enough to circulate through the blood while still performing its toxin removal function?
That way it could function just like our imaginary car that removes pollution from the air each mile you drive. Well, the future will be here before you know it. Dr. Chen teamed up with fellow UC San Diego Professor Joseph Wang, an expert in micro-robots, to create self-propelled, chemically-powered artificial 3D printed microfish that are capable of removing toxins.
What is the Creation of Microfish that Can Be 3D Printed so Profound?
Their research paper, published in the August, 12th edition of Advanced Materials, is a breakthrough proof of concept. The tiny fish, about 120 microns long and 30 microns thick, are 3D printed with unique materials in the head and the tail. Platinum nanoparticles embedded in the tail propel the fish for it when they are placed in a solution of hydrogen peroxide. Magnetic iron oxide nanoparticles are embedded in the head, which means the microfish are capable of being steered through an external magnetic field.
The entire body of the fish was embedded with the same type of toxin neutralizing polydiacetylene (PDA) nanoparticles used in Dr. Chen’s earlier liver filtration simulation experiments. As the fish swim around in their environment, they encounter toxins, which they absorb and sequester in their body. They also turned red to indicate the toxin has been absorbed.
The implications of this experiment are quite profound. The demonstration tells us we could create micro robots that could remove pollution in the greater environment as well as inside our own bodies. The detection component is also quite important: the microfish could be used as a drug delivery mechanism — the fish could sense where the drug is needed and only deploy it in that region of the body. Or the fish sensors could be used to sense a chemical change that takes place after the drug is delivered.
These are very exciting discoveries and we will watch future developments from the UC San Diego laboratories of Dr. Chen and Prof. Wang with great interest. But, as we’ll see in a future article, not all scientists are comfortable with nanotechnology deployments in the “wild” environment. Scientists in the US and in the UK are convening to discuss writing an international agreement outlining procedures for protecting ourselves from unintended consequences of technologies such as CRISPR gene splicing tools and nanoparticles. More on this in the coming weeks.
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